Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau

Independent Study is a remarkable novel that grabs the reader's attention from the opening page. The second in The Testing trilogy, this novel continues the story of Malencia Vale after she has made it through the Testing phase and is now a university student.

 After six months in the Early Studies program being run in Tosu City (formerly Wichita Kansas), Cia, Tomas and Will, are part of twenty students taking their examinations that will place them into their area of study and the career path that has been chosen for them by the government. The career paths include Education, Biological Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Medicine or Government. Those who do  not pass will be "Redirected", which Cia and the others are led to believe means they will be either sent home or sent to another job.  Cia hopes to study Biological Engineering but is stunned to learn that after passing the eight hour examination she is placed in Government studies. Her friend Tomas is selected for Biological Engineering, Will for Government and Stacia for Medicine while Obidiah Martinez is Redirected.

Cia knows that her memories were wiped after passing The Testing which was run by the United Commonwealth Government. She made a recording on her brother's Transit Communicator that told what happened during the testing and she knows that the testing included murder. But she doubts what was recorded so to try to determine the truth Cia surrepitously follows Obidiah as he is escorted by a University official to the TU Administration building. She discovers Obidiah's redirection is simply a euphemism for murder as she witnesses his body being removed. Dr. Jedidiah Barnes who is in charge of the testing process ordered Obidiah's redirection and tells an official that this is unfortunate but necessary.

Cia decides that she needs to leave Tosu City immediately. But when she attempts to do so, she is confronted by Tosu official Michal Gallen who tells her she cannot run away. Cia confirms what Michal suspects - that she remembers her testing. He tells her that she must stay and reveals to her that there is a group of rebels under the leadership of Symon Dean who is determined to put an end to the testing. Dean plans to do this by convincing the president and members of the Debate Chamber to change the law and bring the testing process back under government jurisdiction. Dr. Barnes will be removed as head of testing and the process to find leaders for the Commonwealth will be what it was once meant to be - a process that does not include murder. A second more volatile faction of rebels, led by Ranetta Janke,  believes that Barnes and all the top administrators must be removed in order for things to change.

Michal tells Cia that she can help by continuing on the path the Administration has chosen for her. He tells her that her internship might provide her with information that will help the rebels. Michal also reveals to Cia that besides the three students from the colonies, there are sixteen students from Tosu City who did not have to undergo the testing but who wrote the exam and who have been specially prepared and were selected for Government. This means that Cia's chance to get an internship will be slim.

Professor Verna Holt who is in charge of Government Studies takes Cia to meet her final-year student who is to take the nineteen students to their new home. Groups of students are assigned to a study guide and Ian Maas is to be Cia's guide. Shortly after arriving in her room, Cia faces her first test in what is known as the Induction. She also meets with Professor Holt who informs her that because she has scored so well on the testing, she will be taking nine classes. Ian whom Cia now knows is the person Michal sent to help her, tells her that she is being watched very closely. While the first test was relatively easy, the second test is much more complex as the students are divided into teams of four. The goal is to obtain possession of all four markers upon return to Government Studies. Cia is chosen as a team captain and picks Enzo, Will and Damone.  Cia's team wins the Induction challenge, returning to the Government Studies building first. Other teams are not so lucky. Four students do not return, part of one team who failed. There are now twelve students remaining.

Ian warns Cia that because she was able to figure out the final part of the Induction so quickly, she has aroused the suspicion of Dr. Barnes and Professor Holt. He tells her to work hard and to wait to see what her internship will be. That internship turns out to be with the United Commonwealth President, Anneline Collindar.

Cia meets with President Collindar who tells her that she is disturbed that so many students fail to graduate from the University and she asks Cia to trust her. They travel to Collindar's offices which are adjacent to the Central Government Building. Cia is surprised to see Michal working there and after taking her on a tour he fills her in on what is happening in the government.

Michal explains to Cia that although President Collindar is in charge, the power is really held by Dr. Barnes who is responsible for selecting the potential future leaders through The Testing program. This means that Dr. Barnes and his people actually control the Debate Chamber. Collindar is attempting to regain control of the government and the Debate Chamber. Michal explains that she is trying to make The Testing program accountable to the government once again but that Dr. Barnes is doing all he can to thwart this effort. If she cannot change the law, President Collindar may lose the presidency through a lack of confidence vote.

Both Collindar and Barnes are aware of the rebel faction wanting to change the testing; Collindar wants the change to occur peacefully but Janke's group is prepared to force the change by violent means if necessary. Michal tells Cia that Symon Dean feels the only way to win over the Debate Chamber is to prevent evidence of what The Testing really is by either audio or video recordings.

Because of something she saw during the final Induction trial, Cia believes that the rebels are camped out on the abandoned airfield outside of Tosu City. When she decides to bike out there one night she is attacked by Damone who tries to kill her, but Cia is saved by Jaffe. When her trip out to the airfield proves her suspicions correct, Cia contacts Michal. He tells her that the Debate Chamber vote is just days away. Cia knows she needs to get firm proof of what's happening during The Testing to the President. When Jaffe offers to provide that proof, Cia, Michal and Jaffe uncover a betrayal none ever expected.

Independent Study is a face paced, exciting read that keeps readers on edge from beginning to end. Between the tension-filled action scenes there are plenty of unexpected plot twists. This second  novel is a strong second book in the trilogy, revealing the heroine's purpose (to expose the deadly Testing and stop or change it) and strengthening the overall storyline. Narrated in Cia's practical voice, it provides readers with more of the back story to the United Commonwealth that was formerly the United States of America. Readers also learn more about the way the government is set up and how the testing is organized. There are however weaknesses in the novel's basic storyline. For example, it seems puzzling that government struggling to recover from a war and environmental catastrophe would set about killing off some of its best young citizens through a testing competition and afterwards in university.  Charbonneau has left open the possibility that "redirection" might mean something other than death for those who have failed. Nevertheless, the penalty for failure seems extreme given the state of the country.

Cia is a strong heroine - in fact too strong and too perfect - and it's her characterization that is the main weakness of this novel. She's brilliant at math and sciences, highly intuitive, more perceptive than her peers, is physically capable, and morally superior. It's no wonder fellow student, Damone hates her. Although her voice as narrator is realistic and engaging, she's too perfect, especially in comparison to the other female characters in the novel. Only President Collindar seems to measure up to Cia.

There are plenty of other characters; Ian, Michal, Tomas, Raffe, Enzo and Will - most of whom we really don't get to know more about. They are all supporting characters who help the main character, Cia, on her quest to expose The Testing for what it truly is. Her arch-enemy is shaping up to be Dr. Barnes, although he has yet to confront Cia directly. His interactions with her are mostly passive-agggressive, warning her in subtle ways against going against him. Charbonneau excels at keeping her readers guessing as to which characters might be working against Cia; Ian, Michal and even some of the other students are all suspects.

Despite these weaknesses, this novel was enjoyable. The ending has set up the final novel for what will surely be the end game between Cia. President Collindar, Dr.Barnes and Professor Holt.

Book Details:
Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt     2013
310 pp.

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